By the mid 1930's twin-engine airliners were coming into their own. Lockheed was in competition with both the Boeing 247 and the Douglas DC-2 for the American passenger market. During this blog, we'll follow the Electra from its design phase to global flight.
While some of Lockheed's wooden aircraft designs, such as the Orion, had been built by Detroit Aircraft Corporation with metal fuselages, the Electra was Lockheed's first all-metal and twin-engine aircraft, designed by Lloyd Stearman and Hall Hibbard. Wind tunnel tests were conducted on the Electra with much of the work performed by a student assistant, Clarence Johnson. He proposed two changes be made to the design: changing the single tail to double tails ( a design feature of later Lockheed aircraft), as well as deleting oversized wing fillets. Both of these suggestions were incorporated into production aircraft. Upon receiving his master's degree, Johnson became a regular employee of Lockheed. He would later lead Lockheed's design bureau, creating such aircraft as the P-38 Lightning and U2 spy plane, in addition to the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. The Electra prototype made its first flight on February 23, 1934 with Marshall Headle at the controls. The name Electra was derived from a star in the Pleiades.
In late 1934, the US government banned the use of single-engine aircraft for use in transporting passengers, as well as night flying due to a crash earlier that year. The timing of the restriction was perfect for Lockheed with the Electra as Lockheed's entry in the twin-engine transport market. In addition to deliveries to US based airlines, several European operators added Electras to the their fleets. In 1935 Cubana de Aviacion was the first Latin airline to have Electra service, flying domestic routes over Cuba. The Electra was one of the first commercial passenger aircraft to be equipped with mud guards as standard equipment, useful in foreign flights. With a range of just over seven-hundred miles, a service ceiling at 19,400 ft. and a ten passenger capacity with a cruising speed of 190 mph., the Lockheed Electra was a capable aircraft for its time. By the late 1930's, eight domestic airlines were flying the Electra, to include Northwest and Delta.
In addition to airline operators, Electras were purchased by civil aviators, whose interest was in setting speed and distance records with the plane. In May 1937 H.T. "Dick" Merrill and J.S. Lambie accomplished the first round-trip crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by any aircraft, with both men winning the Harmon Trophy. On the eastbound trip, they carried newsreels of the Hindenburg crash, then on the return trip from the United Kingdom they brought photographs of the coronation of King George VI. An Electra was also used as an executive transport by Bata Shoes to shuttle their executives between European factories. One of the most famous Lockheed Electras was a Model 10E flown by the American aviatrix, Amelia Earhart. This aircraft was equipped with two 550 hp. Pratt & Whitney S3H1 engines and was modified with additional fuel tanks in the fuselage, for a total fuel capacity of 1,200 gallons, as opposed to the customary 200. The performance profile for the aircraft was a 4,000 mile range at a cruising speed of 145 mph. With Frederick J. Noonan as navigator, the aircraft departed the airport at Oakland, California on May 20, 1937, reaching Lae, New Guinea on July 2, 1937. Their next destination was to be Howland Island, 2,556 miles to the northeast. However, the aircraft, as well as Earhart and Noonan, were never seen again. While a number of expeditions have attempted to locate the aircraft, none have yielded conclusive evidence, although a recent discovery of an aluminum aircraft section off Nikumaroro Island could be that of Earhart's plane.
The 149 Lockheed Electras were absorbed into the USAAF transport command when World War II began. They remained in service until 1944, until replaced by the larger and faster Douglas C-47. After the war, Electras were flown by a number of small airlines and transport services, with a number remaining in service until the 1970's. The longevity of the plane is a tribute to Kelly Johnson and the other designers at Lockheed who worked tirelessly to build a pioneer of air transport.